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Business Etiquette In Japan

Busy city street in Japan

Business plays a crucial role in Japanese culture, but some of the intricacies of conducting business differs significantly from Western practices. Anyone hoping to successfully do business in Japan would benefit from understanding these cultural differences and using them to their advantage by demonstrating a respect and interest In Japanese traditions.

Dress Formally And Conservatively

A Japanese proverb states that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” While there are a number of interpretations for this, its message for foreign businessmen is clear: standing out is not an advantage.

With the proverb in mind, you still want to dress to impress; you just don’t want to stand out. This means wearing conservative clothes and keeping accessories to a minimum.

Men should almost always go with a well-tailored suit in either black or dark blue. Pair a crisp, white dress shirt with ties in subtle colors. Lighter suits tend to be seen as less respectful and less professional.

Women should also dress conservatively, with dresses typically being more preferable than pantsuits.

Slip-On Shoes And Footwear Traditions

When you’re doing business in Japan, it’s best to bring a comfortable pair of slip-on shoes rather than anything that needs to be laced up. The Japanese have many customs related to feet and footwear, so you should anticipate removing your shoes frequently.

You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with other footwear practices in Japan, particularly if you are invited to a host’s house. Always remove your shoes at the door and wear the provided slippers.

Heels are typically considered unacceptable in a Japanese office, so avoid them if at all possible.

Understanding Cultural Differences

Japanese is among the most spoken languages in the world, but it is largely exclusive to Japan itself. Similarly, many of Japan’s cultural values are unique to the country, making it important to understand these values in order to avoid unintentionally disrespecting someone you’d like to do business with.

Nonverbal Language

Nonverbal language is incredibly important in Japanese conversation. Rather than relying on words, which can often have different interpretations under different circumstances, the Japanese often look at body language to infer meeting.

For this reason, it is important to be actively attentive when your host is talking. Head nodding is a common way to demonstrate that you’re listening to and understanding the speaker. On the other end, do not take silence, even fairly long periods of it, as a negative sign. Instead, understand that your host is giving your words a significant amount of thought.

You should also avoid pointing or overusing hand gestures. These are not commonplace in Japan and will likely be seen as rude.

Emphasis On Respect

An emphasis on respect can be seen in just about every aspect of Japanese culture. Both seniority and rank play a role in this, with elderly and higher ranking executives often being catered to first and descending from there.

As a guest, you will be treated with respect, but you’ll likely also be treated according to your rank. When it comes to business, you’ll probably interact most with someone of a similar position to you. Do not attempt to change that.

Do everything you can to avoid disrespecting someone during your time in Japan. Mistakes are acceptable, but you should always demonstrate an intention to be respectful.

Desire To Please

Do not always take “yes” to mean “yes.” The Japanese strive for accommodation, meaning they are often uncomfortable denying a request. A good general rule is that saying 'maybe' is their way of saying 'no', but keep context in mind.

Likewise, try to be accommodating to their requests whenever possible.

The Importance Of Ceremony

The Japanese place a significant emphasis on ceremony and tradition. While a foreign visitor certainly isn’t expected to fully understand every nuance of Japanese customs, you can make a lasting impression by adhering to as much of their routine as possible.

The Business Card

Western business is often opened up by a handshake, but you’ll likely start your meeting in Japan by exchanging business cards, or meishi as they are called in Japanese. While most of the Western world has all but abandoned physical business cards, the Japanese consider them incredibly significant.

You should treat business cards as an extension of the person who gave it to you. When receiving it, accept it with both hands and bow slightly. Under no circumstances should you place the business card in your pocket or your wallet, as this is seen as disrespectful. Instead, bring a case or some other way to store them that demonstrates your appreciation for them.

For your own business cards, it’s best to have them translated into Japanese on one side. You should offer it to your counterpart with both hands and a slight bow, just like you would receive one. Always present the business card with the Japanese side face-up.

Plan on bringing plenty of business cards. It is considered rude to not offer one to someone.

Giving Gifts

It is not uncommon for gifts to be exchanged during a Japanese business meeting, particularly if it is the first meeting. The important thing to note here is that it is the act of giving the gift that is important, rather than the value of the gift itself.

When wrapping the gift, keep professionalism in mind. Flashy bows and bright colors are unnecessary and often undesired. Put an emphasis on wrapping the gift carefully. Avoid the color white, which is a cultural symbol for death.

Give your gift to the person with the most seniority at the end of the meeting. They may refuse a few times, but you may insist. Do not be offended if they don’t open the gift immediately, as this is considered rude. Similarly, if you are given a gift, do not open it until after you leave.

As with business cards, give and receive the gift with both hands and a slight bow.

Dining And Entertainment

It is not out of place to have business negotiations in Japan include some form of entertainment outside of the negotiations themselves. Typically this will include dinner of some sort, but it might also include going to a karaoke bar or some other form of activity.

While these events are not strictly business, they can still play a crucial role in the negotiations. Handle with care.

Know How To Act

Unless your host specifically brings up business, assume the event is strictly social. It is meant as a way to unwind after work, and you are being invited as a way to establish a relationship.

You should also follow your host’s lead. If he fills your glass, it is expected that you fill his. Filling your own glass is considered rude, as is drinking alone. If he gives a toast, be prepared to give one of your own.

Eating Etiquette

Unless you are the guest of honor, wait until your host starts eating. If you are the guest of honor, wait to start until everyone has been served.

When you start eating, it is encouraged to slurp your noodles. While this might be considered poor behavior in the United States, it is actually a positive sign in Japan. Similarly, it is actually not encouraged to mix rice with other food like you might with Japanese food here in the U.S.

Additionally, do not finish everything on your plate. Doing so indicates that you would like more, which will likely lead to another helping. When you’re done eating, leave a small portion on the side of your plate.

Though it is not expected, you can set a good example for yourself if you can competently use chopsticks. If you absolutely can’t use them, let the host know. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to pierce your food.

You will also likely be offered a drink. The Japanese consider it disrespectful to decline a drink, so plan accordingly. You’ll also want to avoid empty glasses, since that is an invitation for more alcohol. Instead, leave it about half full when you’re done drinking.

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